Innovations in Flexible Electronics

By: Fatema Fatakdawala

Dr. Zhenan Bao and her team of scientists at Stanford have successfully created the first material that can send precise information about temperature and pressure to the brain and self-heal. In other words, they have made touch-sensitive artificial skin (no rigid parts). Their findings were recently presented at the Xerox distinguished lecture series.

The concept was developed in 2010 when these researchers built a sensing system by sandwiching a layer of micro-rubber between two charge-holding metal grids. The pattern of holes carved into the rubber bumped up its sensitivity such that even a butterfly-light touch compressed the cutouts.

In order to make this system self-healing, they replaced the metal grids with carbon nanotubes (CNTs), thin carbon wires that can handle extreme bending and still conduct a current. In this version, the sandwich’s middle was a flat rubber film that wasn’t as sensitive. Nonetheless, combining the technologies resulted in sensitive, stretchable artificial skin or as they like to call it -“super skin”.

Applications of such flexible electronics could be used to treat skin damaged by burns, for example. “Twenty years from now,” Bao says, “I can definitely see some flexible sensor sheet that looks just like human skin and can be grafted onto wounds and function like real skin.”

In many ways, Bao’s artificial skin behaves like the real thing powered by solar cells and batteries. However, it has one big hurdle to clear: it still uses wires to send its messages to a computer. If the skin ever made its way into a prosthetic, it would need to relay signals wirelessly to the wearer’s brain. “Ultimately we want the sensors to be talking directly to the neurons,” Bao says.

Today, we see an explosion of research around building stretchable electronics that can be integrated into the body. Such “silicon lined stickers” could help make medical devices smarter. Applications include integrating these sensors into sutures, surgical gloves and even balloon catheters that feel their way through the passageways of a heart.

“We went from a computer that fit in a room, to a computer that goes on your desk, to a computer that can go in your pocket,” Michael McAlpine (Princeton University researcher) says. Joining computers to the body, he says, is “the next logical step.”

Fatema joins the RIC team as the Communications Officer responsible for marketing, social media, event and web management. She is a graduate student pursuing her final year in the Master of Biotechnology program at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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